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Professor Irawati Karve

Professor Irawati Karve

(15th December 1905-11th August 1970)

I had the privilege to work as a University appointed lecturer in Cultural Anthropology under the supervision of Prof. Irawati Karve, then Head of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at the Deccan College Post-graduate and Research Institute. I remained with her till the day of her death on 11th August 1970. I first saw her at the Sociological Conference in 1959 at the Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata, where, as a final year master’s student from Sagar University, I presented a paper on ‘Caste Dynamics in a Gwalior Village’. After the conference, she left for Berkeley, but remembered my presentation and recommended my name to then Vice-Chancellor, Prof.  D. G. Karve, for a faculty position. She ensured that her physical absence at the Selection Committee meeting, would not deter my selection. Her gesture, reflected her astute ability to identify potential among young students, nurture them studiously to carry forward onus of research. Irawati Karve was India’s first woman anthropologist at a time when anthropology and sociology were still developing as university disciplines. Her multifaceted personality has carved a niche in the history of Indian anthropology.

 Irawati Karve (Karmarkar) was born in Myingyan Burma (now Myanmar) on 15th December 1905. Her Chitpavan Brahmin engineer father named her after sacred river Irawaddy. However, she was nurtured in the family of Wrangler Paranjpe, a great liberal in Pune in Maharashtra. She completed her schooling from Huzurpaga in 1922. In 1926, she graduated with a BA degree in philosophy from the well-known Fergusson college in Pune. After her graduation, she married Dr. Dinkar Dhondo Karve, son of eminent scholar and reformer Maharashi Karve. Her supportive family encouraged her ambition to study for a master’s degree in sociology, after she was awarded Dakshina fellowship by the Maharashtra government. She joined Mumbai University under the guidance of distinguished sociologist Prof. Ghurye. Under Ghurye’s supervision, she submitted a brilliant master’s dissertation on her own community titled The Chitpavan Brahmans — An Ethnic Study   After completing her postgraduation in 1928, she left for Berlin to do her M.Phil. in anthropology. She started working on the Normal Asymmetry of the Human Skulls and Bone under the supervision of Prof. Eugene Fischer at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute, Human heredity and Eugenics.  She was conferred the degree of D. Phil by the University of Berlin in 1930. This was the beginning of a remarkable woman scholar in an era, when women rarely ventured into higher education, and seldom on the strength of their merit alone. She broke many barriers and is often acclaimed as one of the early feminists. She never wore symbols, defining her status as a married woman in accordance with the norms of her community.  Pune still recalls her spirit for being the first woman to ride a scooter in the city. Her legendary statement was: “Ladies, while fighting with men for rights, why fight for only equal rights? Always fight for more rights”!

After her return to India, she served as an administrator from 1931-1936 at SNDT college and also taught post-graduate students there. Her long and distinguished academic career begins after she joined the Deccan College Post-graduate and Research Institute in 1939 as a Reader in Sociology. It was under her stewardship that teaching of anthropology started at Poona University (now Pune University) in 1963 under a combined department of Sociology and anthropology.  She remained at the helm of the affairs of the department of sociology and anthropology at Deccan college, Pune University for nearly forty years. The department that she is identified with shifted from Deccan college in 1973 to Pune university and became an independent department of Anthropology in 1977. However, discipline of anthropology under her leadership had received momentum from 1963, as separate courses in anthropology were offered in Deccan college along with its affiliate Pune university. Students were receiving post-graduation in anthropology since then. Thus, it is inevitable to acknowledge that she is the founder of autonomous identity of formal teaching of anthropology as an independent discipline in the State of Maharashtra.

Prof. Karve’s academic brilliance was recognised and awarded, when she was invited to preside over the Anthropology Division of the most historic session of the Indian science congress in the year of India’s independence from January 3rd to 8th 1947, under the general presidentship of India’s first Prime Minister, Pt. Jawahar Lal Nehru. The theme of the congress was Science in the service of the Nation and the invite to Karve was a celebration of her individual spirit and commitment to independence of Indian anthropology. She spoke on the subject of Some problems of Indian Anthropology. In 1951, School of Oriental and African Studies of the University of London, provided her opportunity, to compile first draft of the book on Kinship Organization in India. Humanities Division of the Rockefeller Foundation of the United States, Chadbourne Gilpatric funded her travel to the United States. She had extensive dialogues with fraternity of anthropologists in New York and San Francisco. She became a global ambassador for Indian anthropology, travelling to various institutions in different parts of the World sharing her research findings.

One may describe her as an Indologist exploring Sanskrit texts for sociological features. Cohn (1990:143) described her as an Indologist in the classical orientalist sense who looked into Sanskrit texts for meanings into contemporary practises. Her approach was different from Dumont’s efforts to search for underlying models in ancient Indian texts. Her work on Hindu Society is remarkable for its veracity. She draws a corollary between a quilt and a society. Just like quilting in which various small pieces of fabric of different sizes and colour are sewn together, a society comprises of people who come together, bond into social relationships, come together constituting a social fabric. Old quilt may be ripped apart, pieces may be removed but the thread remains. Similarly, bonds that an individual has with his/her society persists when some of them may break away.  Karve’s work on caste is collected in her book Hindu Society: An Interpretation (1961; 1968). Prior to its publication, she had published several articles on the subject in different issues of Economic Weekly: What is Caste? Caste as extended Kin, Caste and Occupation and Caste as status group between 1958-59.

She was the exponent of a rare model of scholarship that amalgamated classical core of anthropology comprising of biological, cultural, archaeological and linguistic aspects of the study of human to present a truly holistic anthropology. I would often observe her having intense conversations with reputed archaeologist H.D. Sankalia and linguist S.M.Katre on relationship that humans have with nature and society. She even went on archaeological expeditions with Prof. Sankalia to Langhanj in Gujarat. She discovered a long bone and thirteen skeletal remains digging these from the deep sands of Gujarat. They also published together a Preliminary report on the Third Gujarat Prehistoric expedition, (1945).

At the same time, she was a serologist, and also a palaeontologist, an avid connoisseur of folk songs, a trans­lator of feminist poems, and award-winning Marathi writer and essayist of rare calibre. One of her last papers presented at a seminar at IIAS, Shimla invited for publication in a book on Ancient Indian and Asian civilization was on the theme of: The cultural significance of Folk Songs.  Her Sahitya Award winning book Yuganta published in Marathi and later translated into English, caricatures several female characters from the Indian epic The Mahabharata. In my view, it presents anthropological interpretation of culture and personality located in the context of pastoral economy of the period. 

She was a dedicated fieldworker. She traversed length and breadth of India and went for Pandhari Wari (an annual walking pilgrimage of several days and kilometres). She walked with the devotes all the way to Pandharpur to worship Vithoba (Vishnu) the presiding deity of Maharashtra. On these ritual walks, she intently observed various fairs and pilgrimages. In a very interesting literary piece titled On the road based on these experiences, she observes that all the places from where people come to Pandharpur demarcate the boundaries of Maharashtra. She also travelled across several tribal and rural areas collecting valuable biological and social anthropological data for the analysis of the civilisational and cultural aspects of the macrocosm.


Karve started her research in colonial India but manged to carve an independent identity bereft of any colonial baggage. She explored India’s rich cultural heritage, ancient texts and plurality. Ardent reader of mythological texts, she explored tribal linkages with mythological representations in the epics of Ramayana and Mahabharat. Unlike her counterparts in the west, she did not invest her time in researching isolated island communities of the Pacific Ocean. Sociologists like Nandini sunder are of the opinion that she persisted with the British tradition of anthropology as she continued to map social groups like subcastes using anthropometric and genetic data or she was influenced by the diffusionist school, as witnessed in the writings of W.H.R rivers. However, in my view, none of her work could be classified as colonial legacy, as they were strongly rooted in Indian mythology and Indian culture. She analysed her field experiences from the perspective of a qualitative researcher. Narratives she generated from the field are meticulously recorded and expressed in her academic anthropological writings as also in her literary works.

Her writings represent a liberal spirit and acumen for analysing national social problems. She wrote an entire chapter on it in her book Hindu Society (1968). Hutton (1965) advised legislators in Independent India to seek her counsel before introducing bills on social reforms. She was strong votary of multiculturalism and diversity of Indian traditions and argued, “The path to uniformity is one tyranny and we shall lose our first cultural value if we make uniformity our goal’ (Karve, 1968: 16). She was vocal on reorganisation of Indian state on the basis of linguistic affiliations. She commented with aplomb on affirmative action of Caste reservations and its long-term consequences. She was a proactive researcher and promoted her students to work on applied aspects, using anthropological epistemology. Once she was invited to address the post-graduate faculty of Armed Forces Medical College (AFMC) on the subject of health. Next time when they asked her again, she entrusted the responsibility to me. This resulted in nearly thirty years of my association, teaching Public health in the departments of Preventive and Social Medicine at AFMC and later with B.J. Medical college.

Her expertise in Sanskrit, Pali, Prakrit and Marathi languages, and her proximity to local traditions helped her document plurality and geographical distribution of various kinds of kinship organisation across India. It was an ambitious project that resulted in one of her most widely recognised publication titled Kinship Organization in India (1953). She mixed synchronic and diachronic approaches examining empirical and literary work at the same fulcrum. Some critics of her work have questioned its heuristics and argue that she should have used the term Kinship systems instead of kinship organization. Other think that this was an overambitious project and instead of single researcher should have been pursued by several ethnographers and divided into series of monographs on each region.

She studied under Ghurye and taught in a combined department of sociology and anthropology; some sociologists preferred to call her ethnologist who was more interested in culturology rather than sociology. In my view, it reflected her strong connect to Indology and its contemporary relevance. Importantly, she moved away from the inflexible construct of Varna and Caste emphasized by Ghurye and Hutton in their writings. She defined it as a kinship group of ‘actual or potential kin’ specifying the difference between caste and caste-cluster. Subsequently, she replaced the classification of sub-caste and caste and said that ‘caste clusters’ emerged due to economic and political pressures. In another publication titled Group Relations in a village community, she argues that kinship, caste and locality are determinants of inter-personal and inter-group relations.  

In 1968, she published Maharashtra, Land and its People, a compilation of Maharashtra Gazetteer. It is not simply data collection on various parameters of the state’s population but provides a keenly studied review of region’s cultural evolution and uneven socio-economic regional development within the state. She mapped caste composition of its various villages and also documents settlement patterns and linguistic diversity in spoken dialects.


Erudite scholar, liberal and articulate, she was also a reformer in her own right. She wrote and spoke on public platforms, in radio talks and in newspapers articles, on current issues particularly language problem, prohibition, communal violence, women’s rights, eradication of untouchability to name just a few. For her academic followers, she represented the tradition of the Anthropology that symbolizes most humanist of all sciences and most scientific of all humanities in Eric Wolf’s words. Pune is today internationally acclaimed as a seat of Anthropology due to the strong efforts and focused diligence of Prof. Irawati Karve. On December 15, 1993, the Museum at the department of Anthropology, Pune University was renamed as Irawati Karve Museum. This was a befitting tribute to the founder and most distinguished first Indian woman anthropologist of the 20th century.


Contributed by:

Prof. R. K. Mutatkar

Professor of Social and Cultural Anthropology

Former Head, Department of Anthropology and first director of Inter-disciplinary School of Health Sciences

Savitribai Phule Pune University


Professor Iravati Karve was a prolific writer. A bibliography compiled by K.C. Malhotra in 1973 after her death lists 102 articles and books in English, eight books in Marathi and several unpublished articles and ongoing projects (for further details refer to Malhotra, K.C. 1973. “Bibliography of Professor Iravati Karve’s Works”. Bulletin of the Deccan college research Institute 31-32 (1-2):i-viii). Nandini Sunder believes professor Karve is not accorded the same international recognition as some of her other contemporaries from the Bombay school of sociology. She thinks this could be due to restrictions she may have had to publish only with her employer the deccan college and not with mainstream international academic publications like the Oxford University press.   

Few of her often-cited publications are listed here:

  1. Kinship Organization in India (1953)

  2. The Bhils of West Khandesh (1958)

  3. Hindu Society: An Interpretation (1961; 1968)

  4. Group Relations in Village Community (1963)

  5. The Social Dynamics of a Growing Town and Its Surrounding Area (1965)

  6. A Survey of the People Displaced through the Konya Dam (1969)

  7. The role of Weekly Markets in the Tribal Rural and Urban settings (1970)

  8. Maharashtra: Land and People (1968)

Marathi Publications

  1. Yuganta: The End of an Epoch (1968) Translated in English (Recipient of 1967 Sahitya academy award)

  2. Bhovra (1960)

  3. Paripurti (in Marathi) (1949)

  4. Amchi Samskriti (1960)

  5. Marathi Lokanchi Samskriti (1951),

Also read following articles written in her memory, just after her death in 1970:

  • Sachchidananda. 1971.  “Sketch of Irawati Karve’s (1905-1970) Life and Work”  Anthropos Bd.66, H.3/4. (1971), pp. 554-558. Published By: Nomos Verlagsgesellschaft mb H

  • Patwardhan, Sunanda. 1970. Irawati Karve  (1905-70) Sociological Bulletin, September 1970, Vol. 19,  No.2 (September 1970), pp.156-159. Published By: Sage Publication, Inc.


Malhotra, K.C. 1973. “Bibliography of Professor Irawati Karve’s Works”. Bulletin of the Deccan College Research Institute. 31-32 (1-2) i-vii.

Sundar, Nandini. 2007. “In the Cause of Anthropology: The Life and Work of Irawati Karve”. In Anthropology in the East: The founders of Indian Sociology and Anthropology, edited by Patricia Uberoi, Nandini Sundar and Satish Deshpande. 360-416. New Delhi: Permanent Black.

Sundar, Nandini. 2018. The International Encyclopaedia of Anthropology. Edited by Hilary Callan Published by: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd


Institutional Support:

Prof. Anjali Kuranae,

Chairperson, Department of Anthropology 

Savitribai Phule Pune University


Editorial Inputs

UIAF technical team

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